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Naturally, he's a chip off the old DNA

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


HARRISBURG, Pa. - Charles Darwin might not be in the federal courtroom to hear witnesses challenge his theory of evolution.

But his DNA is.

As one of Darwin's most vocal modern-day critics testified in a landmark lawsuit last week, the eminent scientist's great-great-grandson sat six feet away in the jury-box-turned-press box.

In the courtroom, Matthew Chapman, a New York author and screen writer, is one of the 75 reporters from the United States and abroad covering the Dover School Board trial, the first court proceeding ever on the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

But outside the court, Chapman recognizes that he plays other roles: lightning rod for the anti-evolution crowd and a living connection to the 19th century scientist whose theories on natural selection and the origin of species provide the foundation for modern biology.

Chapman, 55, a British-born American citizen, says he is stunned that debate continues in the United States 140 years after Darwin's death and 80 years after the Scopes "monkey trial."

"Evolution is such a non-issue everywhere else in the world," said Chapman, who counts among his screenwriting credits the John Grisham thriller "Runaway Jury."

Chapman, who is on assignment for Harper's Magazine and also is working on a documentary for the BBC, has tried to remain an observer on the sidelines, joining the press gaggle, tape recorder in hand, after court each day. He also has been spending time in Dover, talking to students and sitting quietly through anti-evolution speeches by local ministers.

"This is really the first courtroom scientific debate, since science wasn't allowed in the courtroom in the Scopes trial," said Chapman.

Last week he listened to testimony from the lead witness for the defense - Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe - and intently scribbled in his notebook.

Behe, author of the bestselling book "Darwin's Black Box," testified that what he calls the "purposeful arrangement of parts" in certain biochemical processes is evidence that intelligent design is a scientific idea.

"I'm appalled by the lack of respect for the evidence," said Chapman. "Darwin spent 23 years compiling evidence he gathered to present his theory."

Behe said later he was not surprised when Chapman turned up a few feet away from the witness stand.

"Oddly, I felt reassured by his presence," said Behe, who met Chapman during a break in the trial. "He's such a friendly guy, like I imagine Darwin was, who's interested in chewing over ideas."

Chapman says he is amused by the tone of some evolution opponents who spit out the word "Darwinists" with the same vitriol as the word "Communists" was uttered during the Red Scare in the `50s.

Among those Darwin foes Chapman has encountered was the Rev. Jim Grove, of Heritage Baptist Church, easily the most vocal creationist in the Dover area. Grove organized a mid-trial event attended by 150 people titled, "More Reasons Why Evolution Is Stupid."

Chapman said he feared evangelicals such as Grove are more concerned "with the future of their souls than the future of American education."

Grove said he hoped to interview Chapman one day, perhaps influence him. "He isn't what we would call saved," Grove said. "We're praying for him."

Chapman said he doesn't feel defensive about his ancestry.

"The only time I've felt proud of being descended from Darwin is in opposition to creationists," he said.

Chapman said having Darwin in the family tree gave him no star status growing up in Cambridge, England, where evolution, like the theory of gravity, was a given.

"It's kind of like being Newton's great-great grandson," he said. "Evolution was accepted."

Neither did his family dwell on the Darwin connection. In fact, says Chapman, through the years Darwin's memory was mostly shelved away like one of his leatherbound books.

When asked what his grandmother remembered of her grandfather, Chapman said he could only recall family lore about Darwin's hypochondria.

"He was always ill," he said.

Darwin's complete works, including a first edition of "On the Origin of Species" occupied a less-than-distinguished place in the library - by the fire, said Chapman.

The books were later sold at auction, to "someone who would appreciate them more," Chapman said.

In 2001, he published "The Trial of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir," in which he chronicled his own journey to Dayton, Tenn., home of the Scopes trial. For his current assignment with Harper's, he plans to write a first person narrative that explores the people behind the Dover trial.

"I'll look at the effect of anti-science litigation," he said, "the effect of faith on reasoning."

Chapman - who lives with his wife, Denise Dummont, a Brazilian actress, and their 17-year-old daughter - wants to understand the Dover community at the center of the storm.

To that end, Chapman spent the last few weeks chatting with Dover high school students and attending church services. Dover, 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, more suburban than rural, seems on its face far different from the isolated mountain town of Dayton, Tenn., where John Scopes was tried and convicted of teaching evolution in 1925.

But Chapman says it disturbs him that religious intolerance and ignorance can prevail in a middle class, relatively educated community.

"Here you have a town three hours from New York City," Chapman said. "Look at the school board members who approved the intelligent design policy. They are not impoverished educationally or monetarily. That's what's terrifying."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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